Ah, the barbell bench press. Not only is it the most widely recognized weight lifting exercise, it’s the ultimate “bro” exercise. If someone asks “what do you bench, bro?” you had better come up with an answer.
It is a decent exercise for building chest mass, but is it the best? What if you are an athlete and need to consider functional strength? What if you’re not an athlete, and want to be more than ‘all show and no go’?
When it comes to athletic function, the “kinetic chain” is very important. In other words, if you are a football player, wrestler, or doing anything that involves any sort of contact with anything (even basketballs, tennis rackets, etc), the “kinetic chain” travels to your arms and hands all the way down from the feet. The problem with the bench press is that the chain is shortened – it travels to your arms and hands, through the chest muscles, and to the back muscles, and that’s it. If you were performing a activity where you were laying on your back the whole time, the bench press would be very useful. But besides the bench press itself, how often do you find yourself in that scenario?
Another thing to consider is that the bench press forces the shoulder to do something it is not supposed to. The “shoulder” isn’t just one body part – it consists of the clavicle, humerus, and scapula. In order to have strong, functional, healthy shoulders, these three segments need to work collectively as a unit.
What the bench press does is take the scapulae out of the movement, since they are locked to the bench. Furthermore, having the scapulae pinched down to the bench causes excessive strain on the back side of the shoulder. This creates an imbalance, and is probably why almost all shoulder injuries at the gym occur when the bench press starts to get heavy.
Basically, if you don’t care about how your body is meant to work, don’t care about being strong outside the gym, and feel the need to boost your ego by telling your bros what you bench, (or to be fair, if you are a power lifter, there is nothing wrong with that) keep doing bench press. However, if you DO care about being strong and pain free, you might want to try these alternatives to the bench press.
These are all real exercises that can be done at any gym. No whacky rings or bosu balls here, don’t worry!
01) One Arm Pushups
Some call this the new “king of upper body exercises” and in fact regular pushups are almost as good. It does a fantastic job of incorporating the whole body, from the core (yes, that’s a real thing don’t worry), to the hips, all the way down to the legs and feet. The reason we use the one arm version is because it trains the relationship between your shoulder and opposite hip, which is great for activities like throwing, running, punching, etc.
Try to get to 4-6 reps on each side, or up to 7-10 if you are under 180 lbs.
02) Standing Cable Chest Press
This one is my personal favorite, and it was Arnold Schwarzenegger’s as well, as it does a fantastic job of keeping that important kinetic chain running from your hands, through your arms, shoulders, chest, core, hips, legs, and feet, all the way to the ground.
What I find works the best is to set the cable height at about eye-level, and stand quite far forward from the middle position. Make sure your elbows are perpendicular to the floor, and moving straight back and forward as you press. This works your entire chest (pectoral major, pectoral minor) and there is no downtime at all.
Eventually you will reach a weight where it is more work to actually set up the cables, and it will pull you back too much. Once you are doing 12 reps without hitting this point, you can try doing the single arm version.
03) One Arm Floor Press
This one is perfect for people training in boxing, kickboxing, or MMA. Importantly for these people, it allows the shoulder to work as it was designed, and activates the entire body as the kinetic chain runs all the way through the feet.
04) Dips with a Forward Lean
You have probably been using dips to train your triceps forever – it is an amazing tricep exercise to be sure. But to turn it into a chest exercise, you have to make a few adjustments:
1) Lean Forward. This transfers most of the workload to the chest, instead of having the triceps do all the work.
2) Use the widest grip possible. This might hurt your ego a bit if you were doing dips with a 45 lb plate. Your added weight will go down, but this will target the chest more.
3) Don’t lock out. Locking out engages the triceps, so if you want to avoid that and just target the chest, don’t lock out all the way. However if you want to make it more of a compound exercise, feel free to lock out completely.
05) Low Incline Dumbbell Press
Let’s face it, the above exercises are amazing for functional strength, and once you get good at them you will be able to punch a hole in someone’s face. But sometimes the goal is to just lift really heavy weight and GET SWOLE. If you want to try something other than the shoulder-killing bench press, give low incline dumbbell presses a try. Use a bench with a slight incline, and go all the way down until the weights are touching your armpits. This gives an amazing ROM and recruits the entire chest.
To bring more ‘core’ to the exercise, try the one-arm variation of these.
06) Elevated Pushups
It may seem a bit too simple, but the fact is, pushups are one of the best chest exercises out there. It is what our body is made to do. Once you can do 30 regular pushups though, you have gone as far as they will take you, and will need to do something to make them harder.
The best way to do this is to use a swiss ball. Yes, I said I wouldn’t be using and whacky balls in these exercises, but the instability of a swiss ball gives you that added core workout that helps build strength to your pushing motions. If you aren’t keen on using a ball to work out, find any other way to elevate your feet – benches, barbell racks, smith machine (hey it’s good for something after all!), anything. The higher you go, the harder it will be.
Here’s a tip: When pushing up, try to squeeze your hands together. Obviously they won’t move, but this will activate your pecs.
07) 3 Position Hand-Hop
This whacky exercise is meant to build explosive chest power – if you want to be able to punch things and break them, you will want to add this to your chest routine. Just follow the steps in the video, I can’t explain it much better than that! Go as fast as you can.
08) Low Cable Chest Fly
Nothing hits your clavicular pectoralis better than the low-to-high cable chest fly. If your chest is lacking in the ‘collarbone’ area, and you are looking for ‘man cleavage’ this is the exercise you NEED to do.
09) Do the Bench Press properly
I didn’t mean to make it seem like I was shitting on the bench press. It can still be an excellent lift for building mass and strength, and in fact is a great compliment to the exercises listed here. So if you are going to do them, do them right.
Don’t listen to your idiot friends at the gym. They are doing it wrong. Listen to the expert on anything related to barbells – Mark Rippetoe. If you don’t want to buy his book, which is $10 in e-book form, use the guide based on his writing below:
- Lie flat on the bench, ensuring that you are evenly balanced from left to right. Falling off of one side of the bench in the middle of a press is embarassing and decidedly non-anabolic. Your eyes should not be gazing directly beneath the bar, but rather looking just past the “foot side” of the bar.
- Your feet need to stay on the floor at all times, and not move. If you need to get blocks or use plates on either side of the bench so your legs can reach, then do so. Don’t lift your feet in the air or rest them on the bench. Your knees should be bent at approx. 90 degrees, and your feet should be on either side of the bench, with your legs spread at approximately 30 degrees to either side. An extra wide stance will generally be uncomfortable, an extremely close stance will not allow for proper stability and can encourage the lifting of the butt off the bench, which is a no-no. Find a comfortable stance and foot width, and maintain it throughout the motion.
- Your glutes should stay in contact with the bench at all times, and should be contracted during all repetitions to help maintain a stable base.
- Tuck your shoulder blades underneath your body and pinch them together and down. This will elevate the ribcage and stabilize the shoulder girdle. Maintain this state of tightness in your upper back/traps during all repetitions. This will also create a natural arch in the lower back, and will create a stable platform out of your upper back muscles for you to press from. This is called “shoulder joint retraction” and will make your rotator cuff very happy when benching.
- Without protracting your shoulders (allowing them to roll forward/upward and lose tightness), reach up with each hand and grasp it an equal distance from the center of the bar. Use the outer “smooth ring” as a reference point. You should use a hand spacing that places your pinkies within an inch or 2 of the smooth ring. Wrap your thumbs around the bar and allow the bar to rest along the heel of the hand, rather than up near the knuckles (which will cause unnecessary stress to the wrists)
- Lift the bar straight up with locked elbows (still touching the rails) and bring it straight forward over your nips. These are two distinct movements, not one. Remember each rep begins and ends with locked elbows. Do not unrack the bar and immediately lower it to your chest from the rack in a diagonal line. Make a mental note of where the bar is in relation to the ceiling. Find a spot, beam, or other marker to use as your visual reference point. If no point pre-exists, make one. The bar will return to this point after every repetition.
- From a stopped position with the bar directly above your nipples, take a very deep breath, maintain tightness in the upper back and “pull” the bar to your nips in a controlled fashion. Your elbows should not flare or tuck excessively. Ideally, your upper arm bones (the humerus) will form an angle that is approximately 40-60 degrees from your torso. If your elbows flare out wide to the sides (~90 degree angle) then you hit your pecs incredibly hard at the risk of your rotator cuff’s health. If your elbows tuck into your body (20-30 degree angle) then you will place too much emphasis on your triceps and delts, and not enough on your pecs. Your forearms should form about a 90 degree angle with the bar and with the floor (straight up and down). This is illustrated in the final picture on the left. If his grip was any narrower or wider his forearms would either be acute or obtuse to the bar. Having your forearms going straight up and down allows for the most efficient transfer of force to the barbell. You might need to experiment with hand spacing to find this “sweet spot.”
- Touch the bar to your shirt, not to your chest – if you visualize this and then try to perform it, this will pretty much guarantee that you don’t bounce off your chest.
- Press steadily and evenly to complete lockout without hyperextending your elbows or protracting (lifting) your shoulders from the bench (i.e. your upper back/traps should stay tight even at the top).
- Lather, rinse, repeat
- On the final repetition of the set, do NOT press directly toward the rack. The last rep should look identical to the first. You will press the last rep to lockout directly over the chest, and then bring it straight backward until it hits the rails of the bench, and then it will be lowered. Any attempt to press the final rep directly into the bench rests (diagonally) could result in the loss of your face if you miss!
What are the most common errors in benching, and why do they occur?
- Half-assed bench press: This occurs because you shorten the ROM by several inches when you pop your hips off the bench, and also allows for hip drive to actually assist. Keep your ass directly planted on the bench at all times and this won’t happen.
- Bouncing: This occurs because people want to be able to use stretch reflex as well as the flexibility and rebound properties of the sternum and ribcage to help get the bar up. Only ever touch the bar to your shirt and you shouldn’t have a problem with rebounding.
- Lifting one leg while benching: this usually occurs in the novice who has asymmetrical strength/coordination/flexibility. The stronger side arm presses the bar too fast, and the bar tips toward the weaker side. In an attempt to “rebalance” themselves, they lift the opposite leg, which, of course, doesn’t work. Keep both feet firmly planted, and push them down during the press, this will keep them from rising off the ground. Also make sure to press both arms at the same speed, don’t lift the bar at an upward/downward angle.
- Lowering the bar/pressing the bar unevenly: happens for the same reasons as the “lift one leg”. One side will be stronger or more flexible, so the bar will typically be lowered farther on this side than the weak/tight side. While pressing, one side will shoot up and the other side (the weak side) gets stuck. This is a shoulder joint wreck waiting to happen. If you have issues with this, you will have to correct this with firm concentration on pushing with both arms at the same rate and not to give the stronger arm the advantage.
- Not tucking your shoulder blades properly – this leads to a whole host of problems:
- If one shoulder blade is tucked and the other isn’t, then one shoulder joint is stable and the other is loose. Again, this is a shoulder-joint train wreck waiting to happen.
- If your shoulder blades aren’t tucked, then your base will NOT be stable, and you will be pressing from a big pile of mush. Imagine standing on a row boat in a calm pond. If you are balanced properly on the rowboat (stable), you can jump straight up into the air without too much issue. Now imagine standing on the rowboat, but you are off balance. One side is lower than the other side. Try and jump…you can’t generate any type of pressure or force when you press off of an unstable base. Your shoulder blades are the same way. If they are loose, then they can wobble around, and you cannot press properly or with any power, not to mention the rotator cuff injuries you open yourself up to with this kind of unstable position.
Should I pause while benching?
Pausing at the chest during a bench press is the primary technique adjustment of the powerlifter. In order to get “3 whites”, the powerlifter must lower the bar to the chest and hold it there briefly until the official signals him to press. For a powerlifter, it is a necessity to pause their bench press during a contest.
During training, there are advantages and disadvantages to pausing (or not pausing). For now, those advantages and disadvantages are irrelevant. Lower the bar to your lower pectoral region, and “touch your shirt” without touching your chest. In other words, touch very lightly without bouncing. Don’t worry about pausing. That is beyond the scope of this discussion.
I have a sticking point in my bench press, how do I fix it?
In a normal person who is doing a standard grip bench press, the lifter will get usually stuck a few inches off of their chest. At the very lowest point in the lift, the lats and anterior delts are going to be strong relative to the pecs and triceps, which will be weaker at this point in the motion. As you press the bar from your chest, the pectorals begin to take over the motion, and eventually “hand it off” to the triceps.
People make the mistake of assuming that they can automatically determine the weak point just by knowing where in the motion the sticking point occurs. Professional powerlifters who use bench press shirts know that a poor lockout is caused by triceps that aren’t strong enough (relative to the spring in the shirt and the strength in their pecs). However, in a non-assisted athlete, this determination can NOT be made without examining the technique across a full range of motion, as well as examining strength in the various muscle-specific strength benchmarks.
In other words, if someone tells you what your weak muscles are just by reading where in the bench press motion you get stuck, then they are full of shite. There is a lot more than meets the eye. Something can look like a pork chop, but smell and taste like chicken.
Regardless, your sticking point exists not because one muscle is weaker than another, but simply because you are untrained. Spend at least 4-6 months of steady, consistent pressing, both supine (Bench press) and overhead, and then we can worry about where your sticking point is.
Can I do bench presses without having my thumbs wrapped around the bar?
No. There’s a good reason this is called the “suicide grip.”
Can I do DB presses instead of barbell presses?
There are a few reasons why the barbell version is the preferred “initiation” to the supine press (as the bench press used to be called). Firstly, this is a barbell program and only barbells are used. On this movement you will be adding 10 pounds, 5 pounds and eventually 2.5 lbs per workout. This is impossible to do with dumbbells, where only ten pound jumps are usually possible. (Dumbbells go in 5 pound increments and 2 dumbbels make that 10 pound increments. No good.) Also barbell availability is much more commonplace than dumbbell availability, and this is a “minimalist equipment” sorta program.
Don’t use DBs in this program. Their use is wholeheartedly and enthusiastically endorsed by Mark Rippetoe and I (and any experienced strength athlete who has used them). However, their use is not warranted on this program.
Should I do inclines instead of flat bench?
The overdevelopment of the lower pectoral and the possibility of shoulder injury are not 2 things that a novice need concern himself with as long as their technique is proper.
Your lower pecs aren’t presently overdeveloped when compared to your upper pecs. You don’t have either upper or lower pecs, so neither could possibly be overdeveloped relative to the other. Both, however, are definitely UNDERDEVELOPED. With the tools at your disposal, the flat barbell bench press is the preferred introductory exercise for upper body chest pressing strength when compared to the incline press. The incline press is an outstanding exercise, and its use is encouraged as training and conditioning progresses, but the potential pectoral and strength development of the flat barbell bench press is simply higher than the incline press, and as such, use of the flat press should be thoroughly explored before making the decision to refocus your supine pressing efforts elsewhere.
As for the shoulder injury issue, the vast vast vast majority of pectoral tears occur in one of the following scenarios
- The injured party uses steroids, and has developed his strength faster than his connective tissues can safely support.
- The injured party uses weights that are far too heavy for him, and he uses them far too often.
- The injured party uses poor technique, frequently bouncing the weight off his chest
- The injured party has poorly developed upper back musculature, which makes all supine pressing a relatively precarious event.
Assuming you do what you’re supposed to do in this program, it will be years before you would ever need to even worry about a potential pectoral or shoulder injury arising from bench pressing.
Can I do hammer strength or machine or smith rack bench presses?
Machines of any sort are not used in this program. The basic fundamentals of balance are not learned on machines, the overall neural response is lesser, and the muscular stimulation is ultimately less.
More advanced trainees can and probably should incorporate useful machines into their training for various reasons. Machines have no place in the training of a novice, however.
If you’ve already been defeated by the barbells, then don’t bother with this program. If you want to use machines as a novice, then go get a membership at Curves or Bally’s and do whatever the trainer there tells you to do.